Thursday, November 08, 2007

I Say Empathetic -- You Might Say Melodramatic

I had been planning for a week to write a post about the most hilarious of Google search hits I’ve received over the past several months, but it’s hard to see humor anywhere (let alone make it up) when you’re reading the memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi. I finished it three days ago, and I’m still trying to remove the images from my head. I had two things that I had to accomplish while reading it, first I had to try to learn something from it as a writer, and second, I had to try to remain sane.

Last week I started reading it in the comfort of my living room while my husband was kind enough to get the kids ready for bed. Now, with two boys (or really, let’s face it, three boys) it’s all crash, boom, “AAAHHHH,” thud, and so on - all the time, here. Just like you usually know when your baby cries if he’s hungry or tired or in pain, I usually know, when someone is screaming as if they’re being beaten with a tire iron, if it’s all in good fun or if he needs his mama. So I was only on chapter one when I heard J shouting “AAAHHHH!”

Then again and again. It sounded like he might have needed help, but my husband was upstairs with him, so I didn’t react. Then I heard a huge crash and J screech, “AAAAHHHH!!!!!”

My heart started pounding through my chest, and I ran upstairs full speed shouting, “Where are you?! What happened?!”

I found them laughing and jumping around. “Nothing,” they said, “We’re just goofing off – geeze Mama.”

I started crying, and I shouted at them, “It’s not funny!”

My husband gave me the hands in the air, shrug, what’s your problem, gesture.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I was just in a dark, crowded freight car bound for Auschwitz, and I was desperately trying to nurse my baby, but I hadn’t had any food or even water to drink in four days and…”

This book seriously got inside of my head. The general history we all know about what the Nazis did isn’t even the most disturbing aspect of it. The story that Primo Levi wrote is about what can happen to human beings when they are so completely stripped of their dignity, and forced to struggle to survive in the most horrific and absurd conditions. He doesn’t focus on how or why the prisoners ended up there or who had decided and why what the rules and treatment of them would be. The story focuses on what human beings facing those conditions are capable of doing to each other. And it’s so hard to read, because I want them to love each other and take care of each other and help each other and organize riots and revolts, but Auschwitz was set up so purposefully against any possibility of them doing any of those things.

Without ever using the word Nazi, without ever uttering one word of judgment against his captors and almost killers, Levi illuminates a part of human nature that leaves me searching for a word to describe those who would deliberately and methodically set up conditions in which it would prevail. Evil doesn’t begin to cover it. There just is no word for what is described in this book.

As soon as I figure out how to detach from it, I'll try to lighten up here.


cce said...

What a powerful book and one I hope to find the courage to read. It's such a bleak topic. You are heroic to tackle it and allow it steep for awhile.
We watched the Lives of Others last night and I had a hard time making myself finish the film. So depressing and heartbreaking and with such an unhappy ending. It is good for us Americans to educate ourselves about the world's darkest chapters. Almost none of them happened here so it's easy to grow ignorant and comfortable.

radical mama said...

You're right. The hardest part about the book is what they do to each other. Most memoirs and movies focus on the people who helped and they leave you feeling like there was some humanity to be found even in the worst of all human atrocities. But not Levi's memoir. I read it years ago and it still gets me shaky to think about it.

SUEB0B said...

Nah, I don't think you are being melodramatic. I think it shows that your humanity is still very much intact.

KrisUnderwood said...

I've not read this, and really-don't know if I want to. I read Night by Elie Weisel (SP?) and That certainly stuck in my head. For years.
I'm reading Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee right now about the over-medicalization of America. It's a disgusting, yet fascinating read. And furthers my distrust (and respect) in the medical community. I would highly recommend it.
Though, probably not on the heels of Survival In Auschwitz.

By the way-thanks for stopping by! That particular poem is one of my favorites!

Alex Elliot said...

That sounds like quite a book. I'll have to check it out.

Cynthia Samuels said...

Staci I very much admire your commitment. I'm co-chair of a synagogue book group that has read several Holocaust books, and I read many before that, and I'm on strike. The first one was when I was about 12 and someone gave me NIGHT by Elie Wiesel. Nobody else was home when I read it -- I remember turning on every light in the house, the radio, the TV, even the kitchen sink - looking for sounds to free me from being alone with the impact of this book. So I can relate. And Levi, I know, was a master as a writer and observer.
But now I think I want to derive my Jewish identity from the positive Jewish experience, not just because of the martyrdom of those who preceded us. Not to deny the horror that Levi, Wiesel and others have preserved with such courage, but to honor their martyrdom by living a loving, productive Jewish life. With that idea in mind I've quit reading Holocaust books, at least for now. I admire your ability to travel these difficult paths. It's made me think again about my own responses - the best of blogger message delivery!

Does that make sense?